By Doreen Manuel and John Price
Fifty years ago, thousands of people gathered in Stockholm, Sweden from June 5 to 16 for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the first world summit to address the damage racial capitalism was wreaking on the earth.
That conference is recognized as the forebearer of the Rio Summit that led to the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that, in turn, birthed the annual COP (Conference of the Parties) summits, as well as the IPCC reports that regularly sound warnings related to global warning.
The UN, the Guardian, and the Globe and Mail have all published reflections and commentaries to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stockholm conference. Unfortunately, they marginalize or completely erase what was arguably one of the highlights of the conference—the participation of First Nations leader George Manuel (Secwepemc, Neskolith). Propelled by an emerging vision of global Indigenous solidarity, his arrival and activities in Sweden marked the onset of Indigenous resurgence on a world scale.
George Manuel at Stockholm
The Canadian government sent a large delegation to the 1972 Stockholm conference. A late addition to the delegation was George Manuel, the newly elected president of the National Indian Brotherhood.
His inclusion in the delegation was largely the work of Marie Smallface Marule (Blood Tribe, Alberta) who, as Manuel’s executive assistant, reached out to the Canadian Labour Congress to suggest he be included in the delegation. Invited to participate, he responded positively, replying that the growing environmental crisis represented “a threat to the very existence of the culture and way of life of thousands of Native Canadians”.
Manuel took with him to Stockholm an NIB position paper critical of the Canadian government. Finding himself isolated within the official delegation, he reached out to delegations from the Global South, attended alternative meetings, and visited the Sámi people in their traditional territory of Sápmi (colonial: Lapland) in the north of Scandinavia. After this visit, he concluded: “Their major problem—as is ours—is the question of land rights and who actually owns and has the right of usage of the land.”
The press coverage from Manuel’s visit with the Sámi was remarkable, much to the consternation of the Canadian delegation. It marked the onset of Indigenous influence in global environmental summits, one that continues to grow, even today.
The people belong to the land
This experience at Stockholm sharpened an emerging vision of Indigenous resurgence globally and the potential for allying with the Global South.
Working closely in Ottawa with Marie Smallface Marule and her husband, Jacob, a member in exile of the African National Congress, Manuel visited Tanzania in 1971 where he met with then president, Julius Nyere.
Manuel also visited the U.S., New Zealand, and Australia where he reached out respectively to Native Americans, Māori, and Aboriginal peoples. Meeting with an Aboriginal student assembly in early 1971, Manuel chastised white paternalism and racism, stating “Be proud that you are dark. We have every reason to be as proud as the white man. And maybe more…Just as much as the Māoris and the Aborigines, the Indian people in Canada are dark people in a White Commonwealth.”
Manuel came to appreciate the potential of decolonization and saw that the Third World would get to the point that it “will no longer need to imitate and compete with the European empires from which they have so recently escaped.”
Life experiences as an Indigenous activist at home, connections with Indigenous experiences in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, as well an appreciation of the Third World created a perfect creative storm out of which Manuel articulated a global philosophy that would unite Indigenous peoples around the world.
Fundamental to this philosophy was Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land: “This is not the land that can be speculated, bought, sold, mortgaged, claimed by one state, surrendered or counter-claimed by another.” It was the “land from which our culture springs […] like the water and the air, one and indivisible. The land is our Mother Earth. The animals who grow on that land are our spiritual brothers.”
“The struggle of the past four centuries has been between these two ideas of land,” Manuel concluded, taking aim at the long history of imperial expansion and settler colonialism.
Manuel expounded on this vision in a visit to the Tanzanian embassy in Ottawa, at which point the first secretary, Mbuto Milando, suggested that Manuel was describing an emerging ‘Fourth World'.
Having just begun putting his ideas to paper, Manuel seized on the term, as the potential ally of the Third World, and as the title for his book The Fourth World, co-authored with journalist Michael Posluns.
World Council of Indigenous Peoples
Well before his book was published, Manuel began pitching the idea of a world conference of Indigenous people. During the Stockholm conference, for example, he introduced the proposal in his visit with the Sámi people, who responded favourably. After Stockholm, Manuel travelled to Copenhagen, London, and Geneva where, except for the International Labour Organization, he found strong support among NGOs for a world conference.
His vision proved compelling. Working closely with Marie Marule and his close ally on the coast, Philip Paul (W̱SÁNEĆ, Tsartlip), Manuel and the NIB began preparing in earnest for a world conference, signalling: “The National Indian Brother will celebrate the victory of the Indian peoples by bringing together aboriginal peoples from every corner of the globe…The present concern with ecological disasters visited upon Western man by his failure to recognize land, water, and air as social, not individual, commodities, testifies to aboriginal man’s sophistication in his conception of universal values.”
In 1975, after years of work and networking by Manuel and his team, the dream came to fruition. Fifty-two delegates from around the world, including Maya, Sami, Inuit, Maori, First Nations of Australia, Miskitos, Inca, as well as First Nations, Native Americans, and many others gathered in c̓išaaʔatḥ/Tseshaht territory (colonial: Port Alberni, British Columbia) to create the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP).
The delegates united to adopt a Solemn Declaration and to seek affiliation with the United Nations. They proceeded to elect George Manuel as their first president. The WCIP would go on to help create the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in the United Nations, and its subsequent transformation into the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. From here would emerge the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), adopted by the UN in 2007, over the protestations of the settler colonial states of Canada, the US, New Zealand and Australia.
Indigenous people worldwide continue to fight for self-determination of Aboriginal title and rights, which includes food sovereignty rights to clean air, water, and traditional foods. This places them at the forefront of the movement for environmental justice.
Fifty years ago, George Manuel understood this, eloquently expressing the imperative for people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, to work together to preserve the earth for future generations.
For that, he deserves to be remembered.